Has the Founders’ revival peaked? The big bios of the big names, now in big paperback editions, still sit on bookstore shelves, like Pleistocene megafauna, yet the subject stimulates feelings of both satiety and constriction. We have read a lot about the most famous Founders — the first four presidents (Washington to Madison) plus the two others who made it into our wallets (Hamilton, Franklin). The rest, however, struggle in their backwash; although there have been good recent books about Sam Adams, John Dickinson, Nathanael Greene, and others, they never seem to make 18th-Century Page Six.
Myron Magnet has found a delightful way out of this cul-de-sac. The Founders at Home is subtitled “The Building of America, 1735–1817.” “Building” is a pun: All the men he writes about left homes that, centuries later, are still intact and visitable. But, by a shrewd selection of subjects, Magnet also covers the construction of a country, from first thoughts to finishing touches — from the Zenger trial to the Battle of New Orleans. His cast of characters allows him to erase the dichotomy between overexposure and obscurity. The heavyweights are well represented: Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison. But joining them are Founders most of us have barely or never heard of: William Livingston, the Lees of Stratford Hall, sober John Jay. The Founders at Home gives the pleasures of biography, while putting us back in the texture and complexity of a world.